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Mental Competency Assessment and Training, Community-Based Program (MCAT)
Juvenile and Adult Training for Competency to Stand Trial

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Competency To Stand Trial Evaluations

We provide assessments, training and therapy for defendants found incompetent to proceed in their criminal case due to an inability to understand the court proceedings, fully engage with and assist their attorney due to a mental disability or, as in juvenile cases, the juvenile defendant presents with a developmental immaturity.

Click topics covered under the FAQ section below to find out more about Competency Evaluations and how we can assist you.

Competency To Stand Trial Evaluations & Training


What is a competency evaluation?
What does a competency evaluation assess?
What does the report include?
Tell me more about the Mental Competency Assessment and Training Program - MCAT



What is a competency evaluation?

Competency to stand trial is a concept of jurisprudence allowing the postponement of criminal proceedings for those defendants who are considered unable to participate in their defense on account of a mental disorder.

A competency evaluation addresses the pertinent issues in accordance with: Dusky v. U.S., (1960); Drope v. Missouri, (1975); and Godinez v. Moran, (1993)., and the statutory requirements in a given jurisdiction.

The modern standard in U.S. law was established in Dusky v. United States. In Dusky the United States Supreme Court ruled that a minimum level of rational understanding of the proceedings and ability to assist one’s attorney was required. Competency to stand trial evaluations can be ordered by the defense, the prosecution or the courts.

Two of the most important kinds of assessment are competency evaluations and sanity evaluations. Of these, competency evaluations of the form "competency to stand trial" (also called IST, or Incompetency to Stand Trial; or adjudicative competence) are the most common. Approximately 60,000 competency evaluations are performed each year.  By contrast, far less than 1% of criminal proceedings involve a sanity evaluation, which for comparison purposes, works out to about 3,000 cases per year. Sanity evaluations are called "criminal responsibility" (CR) or mental state at the time of the offense (MSO) evaluations. The concept of competency is rooted in Constitutional law (Youtsey v. US 1899), while the concept of sanity is derived from case law. A significant distinction between the two is that competency refers to mental state at the time of criminal proceedings while sanity refers to mental state at the time of the crime.

Theoretically, competency is related to the presumption of innocence (until proven guilty), but there are other related principles of fairness, due process, the (First Amendment) right to petition, and (to a lesser extent) the right to represent oneself. Legally, the U.S. Supreme Court (in Godinez v. Moran 1993) has ruled that all competencies are equal and involve the same standards, but in practice, there are many different kinds of competencies, and each one needs to be evaluated on its own merits.  In its most basic form, competency refers to a capacity to function meaningfully and knowingly in a legal proceeding ... [and where there are no] serious deficiencies in one or more abilities, such as understanding the legal proceedings, communicating with attorneys, appreciating one's role in the proceedings, and making legally relevant decisions (Wrightsman, Greene, Nietzel & Fortune 2002: 294). 

Given this definition, there are two fundamental aspects which best describe the multiple abilities expected, and make up what many scholars (e.g., Bonnie 1993) are suggesting be called "adjudicative competence."  Adjudicative competence can be characterized in the following words, but it must be noted these are not formal definitions, but simplifications for educational purposes:

  • competency to stand trial -- in the most general of terms, a cognitive or foundational ability to understand and mentally appreciate what is going on around a person, especially in the context of having a rational and factual understanding of the legal proceedings; encapsulated in the two-pronged standard or criteria of Dusky v. U.S. (1960).

  • competency to plead guilty -- in the most general of terms, a behavioral or decisional ability to demonstrate the making of reasoned choices, to communicate effectively and to physically and mentally be able to work with and assist counsel in preparing and presenting the defense;

The above should NOT be taken as the only two main types of competencies, since it is really a matter of opinion about what the "main" abilities are that help characterize, summarize, or group all the other abilities.  In this sense, there are as many types of competencies as there are relevant cognitive and behavioral abilities.

In a juvenile court case, Welfare and Institution Code 709 is used. WIC 709 states that a minor is incompetent to proceed if he or she lacks sufficient present ability to consult with counsel and assist in preparing his or her defense with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, or lacks a rational as well as factual understanding, of the nature of the charges or proceedings against him or her.

What does a competency evaluation assess?

Mental Competency Evaluations assess an individual's present ability to understand the court proceedings and ability to consult with his lawyers. One way of assessing competency is to use an instrument which assists psychologists in quantifying competencies. One such test, for example, is the MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool—Criminal Adjudication. The MacCAT-CA consists of 22 items.

The exmination assesses such issues as:

  • The defendant's ability to understand the proceedings against him.
    *Understand the present charges
    *Understand the overall legal situation
    *Understand the roles of courtroom personnel, (i.e., roles of the defense counsel, prosecutor, judge, jury,witnesses and defendant)
    *Distinguish between various pleas
    *Understand the range of possible verdicts
    *Understand the current legal situation
    *Understand relevant facts
    *Understand the legal issues and procedures
    *Understand the possible dispositions, pleas, and penalties
    *To comprehend instructions and advice

  • Assessment of the defendants ability to assist in his defense
    *Recount his behavior and whereabouts at the time of the alleged offense
    *Effectively interact with his attorney (i.e,. to relate to counsel in a trusting and communicative fashion)
    *Maintain a collaborative relationship with counsel and help plan legal strategy
    *Effectively challenge prosecution
    *Effectively assist attorney with facts and identify witnesses
    *Behave in acceptable manner in the court room
    *Understand potential legal defenses
    *Appraise the likely outcome
    *Make decisions after receiving advice
    *Follow testimony for contradictions or errors
    *Testify relevantly and be cross examined if necessary
    *Challenge prosecution witnesses
    *Tolerate stress at the trial and while awaiting trial
    *Refrain from irrational and unmanageable behavior during trial
    *Disclose pertinent facts surrounding the alleged offense
    *Protect oneself and utilize legal safeguards available

  • Whether or not, and to what extent the defendant's mental disorder (if any) has affected his competency to stand trial. (The absence of a mental disorder usually precludes further evaluation)

In cases when the defendant is determined by the evaluator as incompetent to stand trial the issues of malingering (feigning the signs and symptoms of mental disorder) and potential for restoration to competency will be discussed. There seems to be a strong movement toward a quantitative (or test-based) approach to the detection of lying, but many clinicians still rely upon multiple measures of assessment rather than one or two tests.  A claim of amnesia is the most common symptom of those who are likely to be faking incompetence, and the courts are strict on whether amnesia qualifies as IST (amnesia itself not being a bar to competence).

What does the report include?

The reports will not contain any exculpatory or inculpatory statements by the defendant.

The reports address the following areas in sufficient detail

  • Source of referral
  • Date and place of the evaluation, and time spent for the preparation of the report
  • Statement of non-confidentiality
  • Test results
  • List of reference materials and of interviews utilized in the preparation of the report
  • Case law or statutory requirements to meet the criteria for competency to stand trial in a given jurisdiction
  • Pertinent background information of the defendant
  • Pertinent psychiatric, medical and substance abuse history
  • Thorough Mental Status Exam and current level of functioning
  • Professional conclusion to whether or not defendant appears to meet criteria of incompetence

    The party making the referral is responsible for providing the necessary collateral information for the preparation of the report.

    The courts have various ways to pressure or "force" an expert into giving their best qualified judgment on whether the defendant is competent or not (Poythress 1982).  The courts prefer not only an assessment of competency, but a prescription over the likelihood of treatment (to restore competency, if applicable).  Depending upon what stage of judicial process the case is in, the report may or may not be accompanied by the verbal testimony of the expert.  Steadman's (1979) research indicates that about 70% of the time, attorneys will "stipulate" (agree without further examination) to the expert's report, as written, and judges almost always agree (90% of the time) with expert opinion.  According to a review of research by Nicholson & Kugler (1991), only about 30% of the time is the defendant found incompetent, and at least half of those found incompetent have their competency restored after about six months of treatment.  Perhaps the most interesting criminal justice aspect of this involves the two different "burdens of proof" in competency cases:
Tell me more about the Mental Competency Assessment and Training Program - MCAT

Program Philosophy/Purpose/Goals

PSYCHWEST, Clinical and Forensic Psychology provides a comprehensive mental competency program which includes mental competency evaluations and mental competency training with trained staff so that consistency of the reports and measurement of treatment outcomes are stringently followed and monitored.  All individuals are evaluated and treated with the knowledge and awareness of how culture, ethnicity and language influences their involvement. 

PSYCHWEST, Clinical and Forensic Psychology’s
philosophy is that both juveniles and adults with mental health issues and developmental disabilities should have a well developed mental competency training program that fosters creativity during the learning process that is interactive and engaging.  This requires that the evaluators and trainers of the program be experienced in working with persons with disabilities and have the passion in making a difference in improving the consumer's functioning and understanding their particular case needs.

PSYCHWEST, Clinical and Forensic Psychology
provides mental competency assessment and training services for juveniles and adults who are developmentally delayed  and are unable to adequately participate in the judicial process because they are either unable to understand the legal proceedings presented to them or they are unable to assist counsel in their own defense in a rational manner.  It is our responsibility to provide defendants with the skills necessary to participate in the judicial process so that their right to a fair and speedy trial is not jeopardized.  Not all defendants need the same type and length of treatment and all services will be specifically based on individual needs.

Individuals will receive similar training, although the training will be presented to meet each consumer’s distinct needs.  It may be modified depending on the individual’s cognitive impairment and the complexities of his or her case.  Some individuals may be given more opportunities to access supplemental teaching strategies to assist them in understanding the complexities of their case.  Instruction will be provided using a multi-dimensional approach by engaging consumer’s auditory, visual and tactile senses as well as providing an environment that is experientially oriented and engaging.  In addition, repetition and the use of varying educational formats will be utilized to ensure the needs of each client are met.  Basic training in Division II includes 4 Phases.  Each of the 4 phases will assist the defendant in gaining knowledge about the court proceedings and their particular case so that they will be able to participate in the court proceedings with knowledge and will be able to make independent decisions and assist counsel in their own case.


1960 Dusky v. US  362 US 402; 80 S Ct 788

     Milton Dusky was a 33 year old man who assisted 2 teenagers in raping a 16 yr. old and was charged with kidnapping. It was clear that he suffered from schizophrenia. Despite this, he was found Competent to Stand Trial.  Upon his conviction, he recieved 45 years as punishment.  Upon appeal, the US Supreme Court ruled that Competent to Stand Trial meant that the "defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him." It is not sufficient to find him oriented to time, place, and some events.  When he was retried, his sentence was reduced to 20 years.

     The two-pronged test of competency established in Dusky has been adopted in most states, and consists of (1) a factual understanding of the proceedings, not just the charges; and (2) a functional ability to assist one's attorney in one's own defense.

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Phone: (530) 751-1122